Flexibility is the name of the game with online MBA programs, and that’s no surprise. Much of the education sector is changing its ways, having realised that strict, full-time and even part-time, on-campus study programs are increasingly difficult for students to cope with, particularly those working in full-time jobs and with family commitments.

What is flexibility in online courses?

Fortunately, the term ‘flexibility’ covers a lot of ground with online courses. It refers to where the study is done – in the office before or after work, in a hotel room during a business trip, in a quiet space at home or at a local library, for example.

It also refers to when the learning happens, whether early in the morning, late at night, on weekends or during a lunch break.

Finally, and importantly, flexibility also relates to the amount of time an MBA student might decide to take to complete the powerful degree.

Differences between traditional, accelerated and executive MBA programs

Coursework in a traditional MBA, completed full-time and face-to-face within a specific business school, tends to take anything from one year to 24 months. Of course, such a program requires physical attendance on campus at specific times.

Accelerated MBA programs can be completed in slightly shorter periods.

Executive MBA programs, because students are typically in relatively senior jobs and have less time to dedicate to study, tend to be taken as a part-time MBA program and often on weekends over two to three years. Once again, the face-to-face versions require students to be physically present on a specific campus at certain times.

And so, the online MBA program offers enormous flexibility compared to other methods of achieving the envied accreditation.

Flexibility in online MBA duration

We spoke with three leading Australian universities that provide online MBAs, and in each the message about the flexibility of duration was similar.

The flexibility of duration

Each university – Southern Cross University, Victoria University and James Cook University – claims the time to complete an online MBA is two years.

This is the case if an MBA student chooses to take the master’s degree program without a break and one unit at a time.

The number of units

All three universities break their MBA up into 12 units, with units taken individually, seven weeks at a time.

Importantly, in each university, the coursework for individual units cannot be spread over time. In other words, if you begin a specific unit at a particular time, you are expected to finish that unit seven weeks later.

Time can be taken between units

However, enormous flexibility comes with the fact that time can be taken between units. If the demands of your work, or life, mean that completing another unit over the next seven-week period will be difficult or impossible, it’s fine to delay the next unit and take those seven weeks off. You might also then need to take the next seven weeks off, and the next. Learning can very much be completed at one’s own pace.

Of course, there are upper limits (see table) to the amount of time a Master of Business Administration can be spread across. After all, an MBA conducted over two decades is not likely to be relevant by the time the student graduates.

Permitted time to complete with breaks

The three graduate schools we spoke with allowed four to six years to complete the course. Some also enforced a maximum duration of a break between two units.

Three Australian Online MBAs Compared

Southern Cross University Victoria University James Cook University
Time to complete without a break 2 years part-time 2 years part-time 2 years part-time
Permitted time to complete with breaks Up to 6 years Up to 5 years* Up to 4 years
Time to complete a single unit 7 weeks 7 weeks 7 weeks
Number of units 12 12 12

* No more than 6 months break between two units

Also good to know is the fact that a student who, for whatever reason, has to pull out of the online MBA degree after four units, or eight units, will still receive a qualification.

Most business schools offer a Graduate Certificate of Business Administration for the completion of four specific subjects, and a Graduate Diploma of Business Administration for the completion of eight. Just four more and the student earns the most valued degree in the business world, a Master of Business Administration.

For example, at James Cook University:

JCU Subjects for Graduate Certificate, Graduate Diploma and Master of Business Administration

What can make an online MBA duration shorter?

Can an online MBA become shorter in terms of duration? Absolutely.

More than one unit at a time

Business schools don’t typically recommend taking more than one unit at a time online because most students are also working. There is only so much coursework load a student can fit into their life.

However, that student may be taking a career break to study. Or perhaps they are between jobs, taking advantage of an employment downturn to skill themselves up and increase their job opportunities with quality employers, or boosting their knowledge in certain specialisation areas such as entrepreneurship, human resources, financial management, business analytics or international business.

Whatever the reason, it is possible to study more than one unit at a time to reduce the length of the online MBA program.

To seek credit for specific units

Another way to reduce the duration of the master’s degree is to seek credit for specific units. Such credit may come as a result of the past study, particularly bachelor’s degrees related to finance and business administration. A credit for particular units of coursework might also come from the online student’s work experience.

If you’re keen on reducing the length of your chosen online MBA program, be sure to speak with course advisers to find out what is possible, particularly around studying numerous units at once, and course credits.

Is the recommended MBA duration somehow better?

When making decisions around course duration, it is important to appreciate the benefits that come from taking an online MBA in the order it is intended – one unit every seven to eight weeks.

There’s the fact that the majority of students will complete their degree in the recommended time and order. This means one core group of students will work together on group projects throughout the two-year program, developing personal bonds and powerful professional networks along the way.

Business vs. Graduate schools

Also, some business schools may design their coursework with units that build knowledge in a specific order, meaning units taken out of order, or long times between units may be detrimental to results. However, many graduate schools (including the three we spoke to, above) are designing units that stand-alone, meaning this may not be such an issue.

Finally, there’s the fact that in an increasingly fast-changing technological, business and research environment, stretching out any business degree over five to ten years may not create optimal results. Consider how the world changed between the first and tenth iPhone, and you’ll see that the latest knowledge carries currency.

Ten-year MBA options

And ten-year MBA options do exist! Although it’s unusual in Australia and several other parts of the world, some universities in the United States, such as the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, allow a decade for completion of their online MBA course. The program length of the University of Nebraska course – with its ten core courses and six electives, including specialisations in business analytics, human resource management and financial communication – is promoted as 1.5 to ten years.

What can make an MBA take longer?

Just as there are several ways to shorten the duration of an MBA, sometimes there may be issues that lengthen the degree program, too.

Completion of an undergraduate degree, a subject unit or a short course

On the odd occasion, a specific university may require the completion of an undergraduate degree, a subject unit or a short course in a particular subject, such as statistics, to enrol in an MBA unit, such as Business Analytics. This is not common but is worth discussing with enrolment advisors to help avoid surprises.

While subject units of most Master of Business Administration courses are designed to be of similar lengths, such as the seven-week unit lengths of the three online MBAs above, some electives may be longer than others at certain universities.

Capstone units

Also worth noting is that sometimes a ‘capstone’ unit taken at the end of an online MBA program can be up to twice the duration of a typical unit. This doesn’t extend the duration of the course, as such a capstone typically counts as two units, but the longer unit does have to be taken at once.

Clearly, an online MBA is designed to be as flexible as possible. This flexibility very much includes the duration of the degree. It’s vital to have a thorough discussion with an MBA enrolment advisor from the university you’ve chosen for the online MBA, an advisor who is intimately familiar with the workings of the MBA program.

Choose the right provider for your online MBA and there will be a very good chance that the course load will fit comfortably into your life, no matter how demands on your time might change over the next several years. That flexibility is likely a vital ingredient in the recipe for your MBA success.